The Latin word “Dormitory” is about the same as the Greek word “Cemetery” both meaning a sleeping place or a place to lie down to rest. It is from these words that we get the title for the Feast of the Dormition (whether in Greek, Latin or English) – the “falling asleep” of the Virgin Mary, her death. In John 11:11, Jesus says “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awake him out of sleep.” Jesus means Lazarus has died.
What was Jesus’ reaction when He came to the tomb of His good friend Lazarus – Jesus wept. Even knowing what He was going to do – raise Lazarus from the dead – even knowing that death was but a sleep, still Jesus wept at His friend’s tomb. It was a very human reaction, as all of us, who have suffered grief when a loved one dies, know.
The Feast of Dormition of the Virgin Mary became common in Orthodoxy only in the late 5th and early 6th Centuries. Relatively speaking it occurs late in Christian history. That is true because it is a Feast based in theology more than history. It is based in the highly developed theology of Christianity that Jesus is the incarnate Son of God and Mary is the Theotokos, the human through whom the incarnation, our salvation, became possible. It is in the light of the theology that the Feast is born.
The theology led people to reflect on if Jesus wept at His friend Lazarus’ death, how did He react to His own mother’s death? For at her death He was no longer just walking on earth but was glorified in heaven – the Pantocrator. And at Mary’s death it is from heaven that Christ comes, no longer weeping at death, but triumphing over it. So in the Feast, the theologically image (icon) is Jesus triumphing over death. The death of the Virgin is recast theologically as her resurrection from the dead because Her Dormition is turned into Christ’s triumph over death.
Jesus is glorified as Lord, God and Savior of the world, of everyone, and so His Mother is viewed as the Mother of the Savior of the world. Not just the savior of the Church. His Mother thus has a role in all creation and for all humanity. In this sense she is a cosmic figure as well. Salvation, after all, as we profess in the Divine Liturgy, is for the life of the world and for all mankind.
In the hymns of the Church, when Mary is portrayed as the earthly mother of Jesus, the focus is often on her sorrow as she stands by the cross on which her Son is crucified. She grieves at the mystery of the death of her Son, the savior of the world. The emphases of these hymns when they focus on the maternal nature of Mary is frequently her love for Christ as He dies for the world and because of the sins of the world. Her sorrow is maternal, pure love. It is a sorrow that causes her to weep for all people, that our lives, our sins, mean Her Son must die on the cross for us. Her grief, her weeping over her Son’s death, is the end result of all of our sins. Her grief is directly caused by our sin – the connection between the sting of death and sin is made most clear in the images of Mary weeping over her murdered son.
But Mary who is so frequently portrayed as weeping and lamenting at the Cross is also called “The Joy of All Who Sorrow”. The Virgin is the symbol of all who sorrow because of the world and the sin of the world is also the symbol of all of those who know the great joy of God’s promises fulfilled.
Every Sunday in the Divine Liturgy when we sing the Beatitudes in the 3rd Antiphon, we sing “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Mary is the image of the one who mourns who now stands eternally comforted by God.
Abba Longinus from the desert fathers said: “In the beginning, God did not make man for sorrowing, but so that he might have joy and gladness, thus glorifying him in purity and sinlessness like the angels. But when man fell into sin, he needed tears, and so it has been ever since. On the other hand, where there is no sin, there is no further need for tears.”
Mary is the one in whom sin is overcome and who needs no tears for sin because she knows her son has triumphed over sin and death. We have these images from the book of Revelation:
For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water; and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (7:17)
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” And he who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” (21:1-5)
In our Church, Mary, the Theotokos is a symbol of that adorned Bride coming out of heaven bringing God’s comfort to all who mourn.
In the Orthodox funeral service there is a hymn which asks, “What earthly joy is unmixed with grief?” This hymn reflects a thought of St John Chrysostom who writes:
“The joy of this earth is necessarily mixed with sadness; you will never find it in a pure state. The other joy of eternal life is true without deceit; it contains no threat of disappointment, no mixture with a foreign element. That is the happiness which we must enjoy, and which we are to pursue. Now there is no other way of obtaining it than the habit of choosing in this world what is profitable rather than what is pleasant, of accepting small hardships willingly and of bearing all the accidents of life thankfully.”
Chrysostom goes on to say that if we can remember that this world has sorrow in it ever since the first sin of Eve and Adam, and that death is now part of this world, we can learn not to get so attached to the things of this world, even the good and beautiful things, but rather we can learn to desire the things of the world to come which are not mixed with grief but are pure joy. He said this knowledge – that this world has grief and the world to come is pure joy – should lead us to true mourning and weeping, a sorrow not over one’s death, but over the fact that the world is corrupted by sin. The true mourning is the beginning of repentance for our own misdeeds as well as a desire for and a love of life in the Kingdom which is to come.
As we celebrate the Dormition we see the Virgin Theotokos as the one who knows the greatest joy of God’s promise and the depths of sorrow caused by the sin of the world.
We learn the truth of a world corrupted by sin, yet saved and made whole by the love of God and the death and resurrection of Christ. The Virgin’s death becomes for us the symbol of hope, for Christ no longer weeps at death, not even His mother’s death, but overcomes death in, through and with His heavenly Kingdom.